Solskjaer Driving away from “Third Season Syndrome”: A Review of Manchester United’s Season

The English Premier League has come and gone as Manchester City have been crowned champions. Liverpool fought until the last day, but are at least in the UEFA Champions League final. Chelsea finished third and are in the UEFA Europa League final. Tottenham Hotspur came in fourth and will play against Liverpool in the UCL final. Arsenal were just a point behind their North London rivals, but will have a chance to qualify for next season’s UCL because they will compete against Chelsea in the UEL final.

Manchester United on the other hand, were the poorest team among the top six in the league. The Red Devils were left seven points adrift of a Champions League spot and were eliminated from the UCL by Barcelona in the quarterfinals.

However, this does not paint the full picture. Looking back at Manchester United’s season, there were adrenaline filled highs and extremely frustrating lows.

Inconsistency under José Mourinho

Entering the start of this season, speculation of José Mourinho would get the ax before the end of the season was ever-present.

Jose Mourinho

José Mourinho during his time in charge of Chelsea

His supposed “third season syndrome” was primed to strike as the Portuguese tactician began his third season at the helm at Manchester United.

The season began positively as United beat Leicester City to open the Premier League season. Disappointedly for the club, this good start quickly turned into a terrible one.

A 3-2 loss to Brighton & Hove Albion, who led by two goals twice during the game, was followed by a comprehensive 3-0 defeat at home against Tottenham Hotspur.

The trend of mixed results in the first half of the season came to define Mourinho’s third year at Manchester United. His undoing was the lack of enough positive results, and the nature of United’s negative results.

A comeback win from two goals down against Newcastle United was a huge result. Euphoric celebrations after Alexis Sanchez’s late winner became a sign of a potential springboard for the rest of the season. Under Sir Alex Ferguson, Manchester United became synonymous for late winners, so it’s easy to see why fans might have seen this as a potential turning point.

It wasn’t a turning point, however, as it instead represented how poor the team was playing as other comebacks became necessary to win and even draw games.

An example of this was a comeback came against Southampton after going 2-0 down at Saint Mary’s Stadium. United tied the game 2-2.

However, coming back from a loss didn’t always go to planned.

Perhaps the biggest disappointment from a single game basis was United’s first and only participation in this season’s English Football League Cup. Playing at Old Trafford, the Red Devils fell to Championship side Derby County. Trailing 2-1 in the 86th minute and a man down, Marouane Fellaini tied the game in the final minute, only to lose on penalties.

From 24 matches under Mourinho, United won 10, tied six, and lost eight. After two consecutive losses, away to Valencia in the UCL and away to Liverpool in the league, the self-proclaimed “Special One” was sacked.

An illusory change in form under Solskjaer

With the void in the managerial position after Mourinho was fired, the decision was made to bring in former player, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer on an interim basis.

Ole Gunnar Solskjaer

Ole Gunnar Solskjaer during his time in charge of Molde

The players responded beyond expectations. Manchester United won their first eight games managed by Solskjaer and won 10 of their first 11 matches, tying once.

Their first lost came against Paris Saint-Germain who were favored to advance from this UEFA Champions League round of 16 tie. Surprisingly however, Manchester United managed to overturn their 2-0 first leg deficit, winning the second leg 3-1 in March.

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We Believed ⚽️

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For the first time since 2014 when David Moyes was in charge, Manchester United qualified for the quarterfinals of the UCL.

Things were finally looking up for United, as belief in the club skyrocketed. Even former Manchester United center back Rio Ferdinand proudly claimed “Man United are back!”

Ole Gunnar Solskjaer was appointed permanently before the end of the month.

Promising potential turned into short-lived success

In the 12 games that followed after that match against PSG, United won a mere two games. They lost eight games and tied twice. Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s reign at Manchester United began with an eight game win streak and he ended the season with a six game winless run. These snapshots of his time at the club truly encapsulate the immense response to his appointment and then following drop in form by the end of the season.

Having been considered too far off the rest of the top six to challenge for a Champions League spot next season, United closed the gap. Optimism grew that the Red Devils could push on and secure a top four finish.

After the PSG game, Manchester United dropped 19 points from a possible 27. As a result they finished 32 points from league champions Manchester City, the same distance from the relegation zone and Cardiff City who beat them on the finally day.

In addition, United were eliminated from the FA Cup against Wolverhampton Wanderers   and the UCL after their tie with Barcelona, both quarterfinal defeats.

Ole’s at the wheel…but headed where?

The end of the season has left fans and pundits alike wondering why Manchester United didn’t wait longer to decide whether or not to appoint Solskjaer. Yet, the club are now left with a manager who is riddled with uncertainty in terms of how well he will perform.

With a sporting director set to be appointed this summer to help with the football decisions made by the club, United won’t be moving forward until that has been done. Once an appointment has been made, the sporting director and Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, if he remains as manager as expected, will work together to decide which players to sell and what players to target.

The transfer window opened for domestic deals on May 16th, so United will be behind other clubs in the UK.

Regardless of who comes in and which players get sold, the question looming over Old Trafford is whether or not Solskjaer is the right man for the job.

His previous experience in the English Premier League was not a positive one. The Norwegian managed Cardiff City and finished bottom of the league table in 2014.

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Ole Gunnar Solskjær

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Now left with a huge job on his hands, the pressure is on for him to deliver.

Ole may be at the wheel, but where Manchester United are headed seems uncertain to say the least.


Photo credits in order of appearance:

By مشاري محمد بن خنين from Riyadh, Saudi Arabia – Manchester United, CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=48486890

By Aleksandr Osipov from Ukraine – José Mourinho / Жозе Моуринью, CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=45105917

By Tor Atle Kleven – Flickr: Ole Gunnar Solskjær, CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=15304570

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